sweet nothings

The deadline for our Learning Reflection Papers has crept up on me.  Has it already been one month since the Core Chaplaincy Training retreat?  On Sunday, I pounded out the LRP on the segment delivered by Dr. Merle Lefkoff on Complexity, Spirituality and Compassion.  The Science of Surprise and black swans appearing when you least expect.  The Theory of the Black Swan (authored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb) is of an unpredicted and undirected event which is then rationalized by hindsight.  It reminds me of one of the most powerful books written in Psychology by Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails.  Following one of those planetary catastrophes predicted by messages from aliens, Festinger and his research pals noticed that the failure of the event lead to some interesting backwards engineering – or forwards propping.  In this specific case, the group who had predicted the end of the world gathered to wait for salvation.  When the predicted end didn’t happen, they announced that it was because they had gathered, full of faith in the aliens’ intention to destroy Earth, that the aliens had changed their plans.  Thus was born the concept of cognitive dissonance – how we change past thought history to cope with things not going the way we expected.

I used to sneer at this kind of cognitive reverse engineering.  As I did at sweet whispered nothings which had the effect of derailing a hot date in my youth.  These days I’m finding it harder and harder to see the line between things I don’t expect and things I didn’t predict.  Ultimately, they both have to do with a form of blindness.  I don’t expect things because I’m blind to the causes and consequences of my actions.  I can’t predict things because I haven’t yet allowed the data into my consciousness.  Either way, the blindness has its own consequences.

What does this have to do with practice?  May be nothing.  I might be procrastinating on writing the next LRP on the shadow side of the paramitas.  Or, maybe I’m starting to consider the metaphoric Black Swan Event when I come up against moments that turn out to be acts of generosity, virtue, patience, love, stability and wisdom.  I understand that Taleb meant events of global and cultural consequence however missing such unpredicted and undirected moments in our practice lives can also have wide-reaching impact.  And, I fear that when the realization hits of the true nature of the act I received, my backwards rationalization may not do service to myself or the other.

Would mindfulness be enough to notice the growth of a Black Swan?  Taleb, in his 2010 revision, added a section on how to avoid Black Swan Events (getting fired may be a Black Swan Event for the employee but guaranteed it wasn’t for the corporation).  So perhaps, the sweet nothings I disregard or the assumptions I make about intentions and a common humanity could stand a bit of scrutiny.

Thank you for practising,


step into the fire – kalyanamitra & constructive social change

On 2011 March 12, nineteen Chaplaincy candidates in the Upaya Chaplaincy program received jukai as part of the two-year training.  Along with us, three other spiritual friends received the kai and another took novice priest ordination.  This last is significant for being a ceremony in which two women Zen masters ordained a woman.

I suppose all ceremonies are significant for being a moment in which the dharma is pulled further and further into the future.  It is a turning point in which past and future converge for constructive social change.  But how can we hold this delicate vision in an even more delicate and fleeting instant as it occurs?

As Frank and I sat in our favourite restaurant having brunch, he transmitted a powerful dharma from The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach.  Lederach explains Elise Boulding’s concept of a moment as being a “two-hundred-year-present.”  This is how it works: remember the hand of the oldest person you held (your grandmother, great-grandfather) and that of the newest member of your family.  Subtract the date of birth of the oldest person from the potential date of the passing of the youngest.  This is your 200-year present.  My “200-year present” spans from 1899 to 2080.  As Lederach writes, it is the moment “made up of the lives that touched (him) and of those (he) will touch.”

A spiritual community must also take this broad scope of time.  We cannot as spiritual friends hold to the narrowed vision of attraction and repulsion in each moment.  As each cohort of practitioners steps into the fire, this 200-year moment becomes the turning point from which our future is born.  As a practice that is based in a heart-to-heart, hand-to-hand connection we are touched by hands that have touched a lineage of teachers; and we, in turn, touch hands that will be touched as teachers.

We cannot be limited by the moment.  Our practice, to be effective in creating change, must encompass and be the compass of all that has gone before and all that is to come.  To ask for and receive the kai is a commitment to “such a view of time (which) must take place within what we touch and know but never be limited to a fleeting moment that passes us by.” (Lederach)

Thankyou for practising,


step into the fire – helping Japan and the world

The irony doesn’t escape that I’ve been out of the worldly loop because of the Chaplaincy Core Program at Upaya Zen Center. Although there was some time to get online it was limited and I’m only just getting caught up on the tragedy in Japan.  Adam Tebbe of Sweeping Zen and Nathan Thompson of Dangerous Harvest have put together ways we can help.  [Edited] Maia Duerr of Jizo Chronicles also has a list of suggestions and commented “The Tzu Chi Foundation is one of the oldest socially engaged Buddhist organizations — they are launching an initiative to help relief efforts in Japan. Please consider supporting them.

Please take advantage of their generosity in compiling this information.  A permanently maintained list is also available on the Ways to Engage page here on 108 Zen Books.

It was a remarkable week of topics ranging from precepts and paramitas to complex systems theory and resiliency.  Nineteen Chaplaincy candidates received jukai along with three others, and we all participated in the novice priest ordination of one of Upaya’s residents.  It was a reconfirmation of my jukai taken in August 2010 but so much more intense because I went up to the altar with two women who represent creativity in and dedication to practice.

At this time with so much suffering and trauma erupting in the world, it helps to be with those whose vision is set not only on bearing witness to that suffering but engaging in compassionate action.  The Upaya Chaplaincy graduates have engaged in the world wholeheartedly from the Gulf disaster to transforming organizations.  These are large footprints to step into but the world gives us little choice.

Whether it is for Japan, Africa, Burma or your small square of earth, please consider how you can step into the fire.

Thank you for practising,


fair to middling

What precisely is the middle way?… (To find it) you have to stay conscious.

One Continuous Mistake, Gail Sher

This postcard has hung for years, pinned to the frame of the window in my study.  Each time I look at it, I feel a mix of fear and calm tumbling through my abdomen.  I wonder sometimes what she’s doing walking down the center line of highway.  At other times, I envy her courage and trust in herself – whatever rounds that bend, she will meet it with equanimity.

There’s a lot of weight place on equanimity in practice.  It is often seen as the lodestone in treading the Middle Path.  Conventionally, equanimity is explained as an even-handed presence to all things arising.  It is the practice of non-discrimination, non-preference, the absence of desire for things to be one way or the other.  I’ve never been much of a fan for equanimity although I do try to cultivate it, a bit like knowing a bowl of hot oatmeal will do good on a cold day but chocolate would be so much better.

Lately however, threaded through my readings for chaplaincy and just plain interest, is a nuanced understanding of the Middle Way.  I think I have taken (and perhaps it is unavoidable given the way it’s verbalized in teachings) the Middle Way as the Mean or Average of the extremes.  Living the Grand Mean, as some statisticians might put it!  Little wonder it has felt like pabulum and has contorted my sense of right and wrong, beneficial and harmful actions.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s mind-boggling anthology of the Buddha’s discourses (In the Buddha’s Words), the Potaliya Sutta addresses the pitfalls in sensual pleasures.  (No real meaning in picking that one; the book falls open at random.)  Potaliya asks the Blessed One how to “cut off (the business transactions, designation, speech, and intentions)” of a householder.  The sutta runs along several allegories of letting go, cutting off the attachments through right understanding of their nasty consequences.  Then the Buddha says,

Having seen this thus as it really is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops equanimity that is unified, based on unity.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes explain that “diversity” means the five cords of sensual pleasure and “unity” means the fourth jhana or level of consciousness.  But that isn’t what struck me.  “Equanimity that is diversified” versus “equanimity that is unified” suggested that equanimity itself is not a singular concept.  Balanced practice or the Middle Path is not about “absence of equanimity” versus “presence of equanimity.”  It is the quality of the state of equanimity.  I’m struggling with this concept and attending to the way equanimity is diversified – scattered across all the pleasures, distractions, wanton ways (oh Yes!), equally loving all the things I hate.

Further along in my reading on pastoral ethics (and I so wish that had something to do with meadows and bodice-ripping), this point arose: the challenge of doing good and not doing harm does not lie in the absolute statements of “help… but at least do no harm.”  It is in the middle space between right and wrong.  In Gentle Shepherding: Pastoral Ethics and Leadership, Joseph Bush, Jr. writes:

(E)thics is not solely a matter of philosophical abstraction from life.  Rather, ethics makes contact with life itself, but it does so utilizing the philosophical and theological resources that are accessible to us “in the middle.”

In other words, we are challenged at points that are pivotal in our lives.  Joseph Bush suggests that the middle is where  we are trying to determine what to do, how to act, how to respond beyond the context of what is absolute good or bad, right or wrong.  To push the point a bit further, while we acknowledge the right thing to do, we struggle with what we should do.  Among the many models he discussed, one impacted my thinking most because it broadens the need for practice and deepens the intention.  It categorized actions that we are, as spiritual practitioners, obligated to cultivate:

Do no harm
Prevent harm
Remove (the potential for) harm
Do good

The two middle dimensions of practice he presents are the messy middle ground of being for me.  They call for a willingness to step forward and act with discernment and an inability to know the real outcome.

Sher talks about becoming Olympians of middle-way points.  And it’s not easy because equanimity is more quickly diversified than my mutual funds.

Before figuring it out you must want to figure it out.  After figuring it out you must demonstrate the courage to say “no” to the forces all around you that will tempt you away.  Universities, corporations, the media, spiritual authorities, even friends and family will push you to squelch the part of you that knows.  A tremendous amount of consciousness is required to stay with your hard-earned understanding. (Sher, pp.28)

Thank you for practising,


walking the wards

This porcelain lady has played the silent koto for at least three decades.  I had bought it for my mother as a birthday present; she collected “curios.”  At the last minute, I decided the potential of her rejecting the gift over some imperceptible flaw was too much for me to handle so I kept it.  An act of emotional cowardice perhaps but I’ve never really regretted it.  There is something about her intense and eternally focused dedication to her art that steadies me every time I see her on my shelf.  This morning, her hand fell off.  And I’ve been sitting here wondering how she’s going to manage.

Yesterday, I gathered up my jelly-like resolve and headed down to the hospital for a solo trip on the wards.  The Reverend Bosses are away although the newest Chaplain was hanging out.  We chatted for a while and I discovered how hard it is to convey Buddhism in bite-sized bytes to a non-Buddhist.  It highlighted the fact that in my professional circles, I don’t tend to share or have the opportunity to share about my spiritual practice.  Ironically, we talk tomes about mindfulness.  Mindfulness-this, mindfulness-that, and isn’t it all interesting about MB-everything.  But the topic of Buddhism and personal paths seem a conversational no-fly zone.

Armed with my trusty identity badge (I finally have a badge with a picture that doesn’t look like I’m in sore need of a bath!), I headed off into three floors of mental health units that made me regret not bringing bread crumbs so I could find my way back out.  I must have been quite the sight: ten steps forward, stop, look back, remember where I came from, don’t trust the directional arrows on the wall, proceed another ten steps.  Being directionally-challenged, I seriously dislike this form of not knowing.  Next time, I’m taking my Garmin wrist GPS.

In the last post, I mentioned that my goals for Chaplaincy have been trashed – more or less.  It’s one of those things where serendipity and desire met leading to a new path that landed me in a mental health hospital rather than the comfortably known environment of police and military service.  This is all new for me.  I had no illusions that my professional role as psychologist would allow any soft landings and I was/am determined to not reach for that set of robes.  But I didn’t count on the long-trained reflex that would have me dragging them into view.  In a conversation with a nurse, it didn’t take long for the ego to feel a need to establish credentials and haul out the sequined moon-and-stars, empire-waistline, sateen gown.  I think awareness kicked in quickly enough that only the hem and petticoat flashed.

Over in the long-term facility, I searched out a patient I had met on previous visits and wanted to check on.  “Hi, I’m Lynette.  I’m the Chaplaincy Intern?”  (Oh dear God, do you have to sound like a telemarketer!)  OK, so this is new too.  I am politely told where to go (next floor up) and as I head to the elevators, the young person sitting by window calls out.  “Hey!  Who are you?  What are you doing here!”  I suddenly realize I’m doing that “on a mission don’t make eye contact in case someone needs you outside your office” walk I learned in my previous internships.  Look up.  Make eye contact.  Be grateful someone woke you up.  She smiles; I smile and introduce myself, sounding less like a telemarketer and more like I’m a happily lost soul.  We talk at length about Monkey’s Journey to the West and she asks me bring back some books because “Buddha is awesome.”

In our conversation that wound from her holiday gifts through tears about life as it is in this moment and laughter about the antics of Monkey, I noticed a need to ask about her diagnosis, her treatment, her labels.  None of that mattered a damn in that moment and would only have served to separate us.  But my monkey wanted to know because the usual things I can reach for to create protection and an illusion of wisdom are not within range.

So today, when my Lady of the Koto lost her hand, I understood what I’m up against.

Thank you for practising,


koan kollapse

Today, I head into my Chaplaincy internship at the local mental health hospital.  It’s a place I’ve managed to avoid for a couple of decades – personally and professionally.  But I know some good people there and the Spiritual Care folks have given me a chance to dig deep into my practice.  I think this might be the edge where, as roles and realities collide, koans can be actualized.  But first, I have to get past the robes I wear.

No, I’m not talking about the Buddhist robes.  Psychologists get to wrap themselves in robes too.  Big, heavy, layered masses of psychic authority and kevlar-heart.  At least that’s how I was trained and, while I value the necessity of boundaries and authority, I like to strive for lapsing skillfully when required.  So I think this layer of doctrinal authority will be the first to set aside in the cultivation of the relational.

No, I’m not talking about working with the patients. They have fewer delusions and more keys to doors than I do and are skilled at moving snow with pine needles.

The professional hierarchy in institutions is obvious.  But the power structure is not.  See? I really was paying attention during the brief years I spent interning in a community general hospital and learned quickly that you always bring cookies for the folks on the front lines.  Appreciation and empathy being a rarity, it wasn’t the cookies as much as the opportunity to share a laugh over them that nourished the relationship.  On such ground, I can be open again to the question: which koans will surface, expand, and collapse?

Unmon said, “Look!  This world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your priest’s robes at the sound of the bell?”

Why, indeed?  Why?

koan konfusion

One of the struggles during Rohatsu was the question of continuing with the Chaplaincy program.  There’s definitely a lot of ego involved in the decision, which ever way it goes.  The typical way to approach this is to set up the scales that will weigh out the options.  If I were my patient, that’s certainly what I’d suggest.  And I definitely (knowing the kind of patient I am) would not expect compliance.  Which is good because the point of suggesting an exercise is not to get compliance but rather to see if comprehension can bubble to the surface.  But that requires a level of subtlety and trust in the unobservable process of mind.

Like a koan.

Jay Haley, master of prescribing the symptom and a mystic of paradoxes, would have made a great Zen master.  He would have sent me out of his office with the injunction that I was NOT, absolutely NOT to make any decisions – no peas or carrots decisions, no red or green sweater decisions, none.  Life would be reduced to one gigantic ball of indecision that I could neither swallow nor throw up.  Luckily, I could never afford Haley as a therapist and have to settle for me.

I’m more of the School of Sledgehammer Therapy.  Don’t get me wrong, I can do the subtle stuff: so what do you notice when you consider the possibility of going back for a second year?  But very quickly, as I watch my mind careen and collide against rapidly expanding if-then flowcharts in my skull, I lose patience.  Subtlety and support go out the window and the Big Stick of Reality comes out.

In this case, reality is not an actuarial count of yeah and nay.  And that makes it tough.  Reality is that comprehension requires indecision.  Unable to tolerate indecision, I take refuge in the intellect.  What symptoms could I prescribe to get under the intellectual grip of the problem?  10, 000 prostrations (not a bad idea; Enkyo roshi spoke of bows being good for a narcissist)?  Copying 108 sutras in Pali (sure; got all the time in world to do that for the next three months).  Circumambulate the Shwe Dagon Pagoda (not likely; the barn will have to do)?  Sit another 7 day sesshin (hah!  and develop another obsession with red toenails)?

Thankfully, I know me too well some days.  The decision will not surface as the endpoint of an intellectual exercise.  It certainly will not emerge through introspection or being open to the universe (all that does is have my brains fall out anyway).  Like the morning star that pierced Shakyamuni all the way through to the ancient layers of his being, comprehension will surface and work its magic in its own time.

In the meantime, a few prostrations, sutra copying, mindful trekking through the woods couldn’t hurt.